Beung Kiat Ngong Ramsar Site, located in Champasak Province in southern Lao PDR, consists of various features such as swamps, lakes, peatlands and marshes. The wetland is home to 43 fish species in the wet season and 20 fish species in the dry season. It doesn’t only offer a passage for fish to move upstream, but is also a spawning ground for them. Water birds use Bueng Kiat Ngong as a nesting site.
The livelihoods of more than ten thousand villagers depend on this wetland that supports various activities such as agriculture, fishing and collecting non-timber forest products. Furthermore, villagers learn to earn an additional income from tourism in the wetlands. This becomes an alternative earning option for family wellbeing and for reducing the direct exploitation to wetland resources.
Although sometimes tourists go for bird-watching, elephant rides are most popular. IUCN reports that in 2008 there were 27 elephants living in Beung Kiat Ngong Wetlands. Usually, the tour operators contact the mahout and organize a 2-hour elephant ride to a mountain called Phu Asa. The income generated through tourism is not equitably shared amongst community members. Only tour operators from the city, elephant owners and private homestay operators get greater benefits from this tourism. Most of the villagers do not get a significant share. While the tourists demand a better quality of accommodation and food and greater variety of tourism activities in the areas, communities have the limited capacity to offer this.
"Over the years, the number of tourists coming to Beung Kiat Ngong have significantly reduced. It is not easy to attract tourists as they have to travel hours from the city just for elephant rides. Today, there are only 13 elephants left. Demands are getting higher. This is also a rising threat to the wellbeing of the wetlands. When local people have lesser options from which to earn an income for supporting themselves, they can easily revert to exploiting the wetlands. We can see that non-timber products are being collected improperly, paddy fields are expanding into the wetland, and the water level in Beung Kiat Ngong has declined", says Vilavong Vannalath, Field Coordinator of IUCN's Mekong Water Dialogues.
In May 2013, IUCN together with ElefantAsia organised two meetings which brought together representatives from communities, local authorities and tour operators to discuss the current situation and try to find the way forward. Tour operators request for a better quality of hospitality services and more creative tourism activities from communities in Beung Kiat Ngong. At the same time, communities ask tour operators to bring more tourists to their sites.
A tourism development plan is developed as part of the for Beung Kiat Ngong Ramsar Site management plan. All agreed that it is time to take action for the community’s survival as well as the natural resources that are vital parts of their lives. The plan will include setting up the living museum, capacity-building for villagers on providing hospitality services, improvement of community homestays and restaurants, promoting local handicrafts and so on. All these are challenges for the whole community and relevant stakeholders to cope with, in order to ensure security of their livelihoods and the natural environments they inhabit.
By Dararat Weerapong